December 23, 2013

5 Women Writers Who Saved My Life. ~ Danielle Orner

When I need direction, I go to the shelves.

They’ve been there for me through every crisis and change. When I was bullied in school, I found books about outsiders.

When I was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 15, I discovered the voices of survivors.

Brave women I’d never met guided me through each dark night and each transition with honest wisdom.

Used bookstores and libraries are best because they smell like old pages—a scent that instantly relaxes me and welcomes me home. Sometimes I bring a list of titles with me. More often, I leave my selections to fate. Hopelessly right-brained, I’ve always found it strange that places dedicated to whimsical bibliophiles are ruled by numbers and logic. I prefer to wander up and down the aisles, with my fingertips trailing across book spines, waiting for a title to whisper to me.

I inherited my love of books from my mom, who inherited it from her English professor dad. I grew up in rooms lined with groaning shelves. Whenever something went wrong, Mom went to those bookcases. If the answer wasn’t there, she went in search of a new book. As children, my siblings and I would curl up next to her each night with our hair still wet from our evening baths and listen to her read to us.

The ritual of reading has sustained me through every trial. When I was too sick to even hold a book up, I listened to audiobooks, which transported me beyond the walls of the Children’s Oncology Ward. In college, I could find peace on the top floor of the library where the huge windows faced the sun setting behind the palm trees. Audiobooks keep me sane during my ridiculous commute in L.A. traffic. Even my dad is very superstitious about bringing a book to a waiting room—he swears you always have to wait longer if you don’t have one.

When I taught middle school English, I was extremely picky about the stories I used in the classroom. We read The Clay Marble, about Cambodian children caught in a civil war. One student, whose dad was deployed in the Middle East, decided to write letters of love and support to Afghan children. I understood his internal struggle. My dad had recently returned from his second tour in Iraq. Half our town was connected to the military.

Still, a single book brought about a flowering of compassion and opened a mind to the complexity of our world. Another failing student actually started his first project after we read about Cesar Chavez for our Heroes unit.

When I asked him about it, this regularly sullen boy explained that his family were migrant workers and wherever they went his mother hung a picture of Chavez in the kitchen. Books serve as a source of connection—a bridge between worlds.

Books also make new ideas available. My librarian friend recently told me hilarious (and sometimes disturbing) stories about the books she found as she edited the Picture Book Collection at her branch. Outdated books explaining how girls can only grow up to be nurses and secretaries are now laughable. Still, these books were once accurate. Women had to speak up to “put their ideas in our heads.”

Each time a new voice bravely enters to say this is how the world is for me, we can grow in understanding and unity. Reading is the closest I’ve ever come to being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. The result is the end of silence and shame around so many issues. Reading is not only an act of connecting—it is an act of subversion. Together, we refuse to allow one culturally-agreed-upon voice determine our experience. So, let’s fill our closets with these kinds of shoes—the well-worn shoes of the lives of others.

Whether you are seeking personal transformation or hoping to change the world, here are five female voices who’ve altered the course of my life. While there are so many cultural messages about what girls and women should strive be, each of these authors dares you to see alternatives.

1. Crazy, Sexy Cancer by Kris Carr

After a decade in and out of the hospital with bone cancer, I found this book. I followed Carr’s tips and finally went into remission. Her honesty and sass made the book appealing and easy to read. She sparked a fire that has led me to become a vegan and yoga teacher.

2. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

A charmingly illustrated children’s book, Cooney’s story became my lifelong mission statement. In this story, the young Miss Rumphius is told by her grandfather to do only three things: travel the world, live by the sea and make the world a more beautiful place. In our fast-paced, competitive world, this advice reminds me how to build a meaningful life—with a sense of adventure, an open heart, an appreciation of nature and a generous spirit.

3. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

An advice column like no other, this collection of essays is authentic and heart-breaking but full of hope. Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild, shows us how life and love can be deeply imperfect. I love her voice because she demonstrates that we don’t need to clean up our experiences or be pillars of virtue in order to inspire. Authenticity, above all, sets us free.

4. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, P.hD.

Speaking of authenticity, Brown’s research on shame and how it limits women should be required reading. Her explanation of the original definition of courage—to tell one’s story with one’s whole heart—is reason enough to read and reread her insights into how much it hurts to edit ourselves in an effort to win approval.

5. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

This instructional manual on spiritual living and creativity has come into my life so many times that I’ve lost track of all my copies. I stole my mom’s copy just to have one with all her scribbled notes in the margins. When I was going through my second round of chemotherapy treatments, my mom signed us both up for a writing class. Those evenings, spent sipping cocoa with a 20s-styled hat on my bald head and a copy of this book under my arm, made me feel like more than a sick person—I felt like I had permission to call myself a writer. Whenever doubt creeps in, I start the course all over again.

As the holidays draw near, I am deeply grateful to my parents, who always put books under the tree. I hope you enjoy these recommendations while sipping tea by the fire. Of course, the best thing to do with a great book is to pass it on. Please feel free to share your recommendations with me.

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Assistant Editor: Lauren Savory / Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Jason M Parrish / Flickr

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Danielle Orner